Mohammad Salas Babajani, a Gonabadi dervish, was executed early on the morning of June 18. Salas Babajani was accused of killing three police officers by running them over in a bus during clashes between dervishes and the police in February 2018. 

The clashes erupted after a number of plainclothes agents were deployed around the home of Noor Ali Tabandeh, the grandmaster of the Gonabadi Sufi order. Fearing that the security agents were planning to arrest Tabandeh or to put him under house arrest, a group of dervishes surrounded his home to ward off any such attempt. The confrontation soon escalated into violence. A video released after the unrest shows a white bus moving toward the police and running some of them down. Mohammad Salas was accused of driving the bus.

His trial started on March 11, 2018. Three weeks before, Hossein Rahimi, the commander of Tehran police, said in a statement broadcast on TV: “The police expect the judiciary to issue a verdict of death for Mohammad Salas.” In addition, other police officials said they were hoping that Salas would be executed before the start of the Iranian new year on March 21. These statements revealed that the police were well aware in what direction the trial was headed even before the verdict was issued.  

On March 19, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that Mohammad Salas had been sentenced to death, but it was only on April 4 that judiciary officially announced the verdict. Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that during the course of the investigations, Salas had confessed that he had intentionally driven the bus toward the police and said that he had acted out of anger and rage.

There was widespread skepticism among Sufi and civil society activist communities about the confession, which many people suspected was the result of intimidation. The “confession” was broadcast on Iran’s state news agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), on 20 February, the day after Salas’ arrest.

 

Stage-Managed by the Police

But, on May 24, an audio file was released in which Salas denied the charges. “I am innocent,” he said in the recording. “There were two buses. I was not the driver of the bus that killed people. I am not a murderer. I cannot even hurt a fly. All of this has been stage-managed by the police…It was another bus that was used to murder people.”

He also explained why he had confessed to the crime. “Had I defended myself in the court they would have killed me,” Salas said in the clip. “I was afraid to say [that I am innocent]. At the police station they beat me for two hours. I had only said ‘it was not me” and they said: ‘beat him until he dies and then claim that he was killed during the clashes.’ I was trying to placate the police so they would not kill me and so I would get a chance to let [people outside] know what I want to say.”

In a statement on June 17, a day before the execution, Amnesty International called on Iranian authorities to immediately annul the death sentence against Mohammad Salas. It demanded a retrial that met with international standards on fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty. Iranian judicial authorities disregarded this request and all other appeals.

A little earlier Salas’s lawyer Zeinab Taheri had said she had “irrefutable proof” that he was not guilty, and also asked the Iranian Supreme Court to order a new trial. She said that she had found new witnesses who say that the driver of the bus that ran over the police was a young man. At the time of his execution Mohammad Salas was 50. Authorities also rejected Taheri’s appeal.

Violating Due Process

Taheri tweeted that she planned to go to the media with the public documents that would prove her client’s innocence. Critics of the verdict say that, during the investigations, authorities did not follow due process. They ignored the request to fingerprint the bus and failed to take statements from witnesses during the trial. Moreover, the trial was held behind closed doors.

Critics also claim that Salas confessed as a result of torture and beatings by the police. They say that when the bus ran over the policemen, Salas was already in police custody and could not have possibly been responsible. They say that the investigations and the trial were both rushed through, revealing that authorities outside the judiciary decided to sacrifice the defendant in order to make him an example.

The family of Mohammad Salas asked that the coroner examine his body. But the family's lawyer Zeinab Taheri tweeted that security agents had quickly taken the executed man to his birthplace in Borujerd and immediately buried it.

 

More on the plight of Iran's Gonabadi Sufis:

The Unknown Fate of the Arrested Gonabadi Sufis, March 28, 2018

Gonabadi Sufi Dies in Prison, March 5, 2018

The Dervishes Show How it's Done, February 22, 2018

The Sufi Case: From 2014’s Civil Resistance to 2018’s Violent Clashes, February 21, 2018

Clashes Between Police and Sufis Leave Five Dead, February 20, 2018

Who are the Gonabadi Sufis?, February 13, 2018

Arrested Gonabadi Sufis Go on Hunger Strike, January 1, 2018

Campaign for the Rights of Gonabadi Sufis Gains Support, October 11, 2017

Iran Cracks Down on Sufis, July 20, 2017

Supreme Court Upholds Sentences for Gonabadi Dervishes, February 3, 2015

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